As the era of the Space Shuttle closes, a new era of American spaceflight opens, one of private companies vying for customers and of an increasingly incapable NASA. Since the 2011 cancellation of the Space Shuttle, the United States has been without its own launch system capable of manned flight. NASA has faced growing problems with timetables, efficiency, productivity and costs in recent years. At the same time, private space flight has made unimaginable advancements in the same areas. SpaceX has achieved all that was promised of the Space Shuttle and more, while other private companies are improving upon space station design. Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow, and Virgin Galactic are pushing our space horizons. For the United States, the path to future success in space is clear: move away from the public space ventures of NASA and take advantage of the new and efficient opportunities presented by private groups to fulfill, to the greatest extent, American interests in space.
The Current State of Spaceflight
The current order of international cooperation is coming to a critical point. The International Space Station (ISS) will finally be decommissioned in 2024 after a long life. The Soyuz ride-buying program, which gave NASA access to the ISS after the cancelation of the Space Shuttle, will end in April 2019. Russia is unlikely to renew the program and China is positioning itself in opposition to the United States as a new space power. In the meantime, the private sector has grown into a power player in nearly all corners of the space sector. SpaceX vastly expanded its launch capabilities; Bigelow is moving towards selling their space capsules; and Virgin Galactic joined the noteworthy list of American companies to reach space. If the United States wishes to maintain the current order of international agreements and projects, it would have to invest time, resources and public enthusiasm in building new agreements and partnerships while many are instead moving to more competitive models.
China is making moves to launch an international space station of its own to orbit and return to manned flight operations. As Russia lags behind in manned flight capabilities, the next few years will see a complete change in manned space flight: the capable nations will switch from just Russia to the United States and China. The two-nation dynamic of China and the US—compounded by mounting tensions—could inhibit future international cooperative ventures. The current scenario strongly mirrors the beginning of the Cold War space race. Both the United States and China are pushing for increased influence in space and their gains in spaceflight are increasingly competing with each other. Soon the United States may very well find itself in another fully-fledged race for prominence in space. Such a possibility would make cooperative ventures less alluring to the United States as they would require sharing information, methodology, and techniques, all of which could be deemed important to protecting national security.
The Pitfalls of Space Cooperation
The existing order of cooperation does not even benefit the US. The costs of the ISS prohibit the concurrent use of the ISS and the operation of deep space missions by NASA. The ISS, the greatest example of international cooperation in space, was horribly slated against the US. America bore fifty percent of the $100 billion project, provided the Space Shuttle as a launch system for supplies (a $209 billion overall lifetime cost), and pays $3-4 billion annually to maintain the station. On the opposite end, Europe boasts of the affordability of the program. The costs to the Europeans Space Agency (in dollars) are only about $1.12 per citizen per year, for a total of $8.96. The US, on the other hand, spends about $16.53 per citizen per year—excluding Space Shuttle costs.
In terms of GDP, the fifteen European member nations of the ISS have a combined GDP of $12.1304 trillion in 2016 compared to America’s $18.62 trillion GDP in 2016. The European nations have a combined GDP about 65% the size of the US economy yet made a contribution only 16% the size of the American contribution. Further, of the forty-three missions which built the ISS, 37 were launched on an American Space Shuttle and on the American dime, costing the American government from $16.65 to $37 billion based on NASA’s and Space.com’s estimates of average launch costs, respectively.
Another example of cooperation coming to a close in the coming years is the American-Russian Soyuz ride-buying program. The ride-buying program began during the Space Shuttle years but became America’s—and the world’s—sole access to the ISS after the Space Shuttle program was cancelled. Following the cancellation, Russia quickly raised the price of the ride-buying program to approximately $80 million per astronaut (enough to cover the entire cost of launch and a 372% increase from ten years prior). Russia’s decision was an attempt to take full advantage of its monopoly on manned space flight. Expectedly, the Soyuz agreement is unlikely to be renewed. The Government Accountability Office advised against renewal in a report to Congress, as Russia would likely not be able to provide launches again until 2021 due to negotiations and recent Soyuz failures. NASA has not taken an official stance, but SpaceX is currently drawing close to achieving manned flight.
The Rise of Space Companies
While there was no alternative to the ISS at the time of its construction, new private innovations in space station technology offer solutions to many of the problems the ISS has faced. The most promising of these have been created by BigeLow. BigeLow is a private producer of modules for space stations which inflate once in orbit. Its modules represent are a marked improvement over current ISS modules due to their adaptability and inflatability. Their product, the B330, has an internal inflated volume of 330 cubic meters and a overall compacted volume of about 110 cubic meters, compared to ISS modules that range from 1 to 71.5 cubic meters. Further, the modules can be arranged in a variety of configurations to form a larger space station, augment an existing space station or inflate as an independent space station or space ship. Each pod can sustain six people.The BEAM test module (the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) is currently installed on the ISS as a storage unit and proof of concept. Bigelow advertises a cost of $25 million to rent one third of the station.
In conjunction with Bigelow, private companies (SpaceX being the foremost of them) have vastly reduced the cost to launch material into space compared to other companies and have forced other groups to make similar changes. Overall, SpaceX has reduced costs to around $60 million and $90 million total for its two rockets: Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy respectively. These are not the lowest price tags, but when compared to the total cargo capable of being launched, SpaceX is by far the most efficient. The new Crew Dragon capsule is capable of holding up to seven astronauts at a time and will be launched on top of the Falcon 9, bringing the cost per seat down to $8.57 million, nearly one tenth the price of a Soyuz seat.
Instead of spending time trying to draw international support, negotiate agreements and secure funding, the United States should move forward on a national space station and quickly assemble one of its own. According to Ian Pryke of the Center for Aerospace Research at George Mason University, when a project is made international the “overall cost of implementation increases” and “redundancy [is] added.” Instead of mitigating these issues with varying degrees of success, the US government could sidestep them entirely by turning to the private sector for construction and launches.
How Private Initiative Can Help
The most important aspect, construction, could be handled by BigeLow. Their inflatable pods offer the perfect means of quickly and efficiently creating large structures in space. BigeLow is already planning a possible replacement for the ISS at 2.5 times the ISS volume. The station would likely be transported by the United Launch Alliance. Basic estimates suggest that the planned station could hold an absolute maximum of forty-two people, though likely far fewer in reality due to the need for storage and space for experiments (the ISS currently has a typical occupancy of six but has ranged from two to thirteen in the past). These modules are cheaper, stronger, and larger than those used on the ISS and could be assembled quickly into a station larger than the ISS at a fraction of the cost.
Launches of materials into orbit could also be handled by America’s increasingly capable and efficient launch industry. SpaceX’s ability to cheaply launch large amounts of material into space with the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Super Heavy Starship/Big Falcon Rocket, combined with the ULA’s Vulcan and NASA’s heavy duty SLS, will all come online in the coming decade. These advancements will give the United States superiority in space again and the ability to launch massive amounts of material to nearly any point in the solar system at a price subject to negotiation and competition. These rockets could then be used to further the United States’ aim of expanding beyond earth. The first mission could, for example, be used to construct BigeLow’s replacement space station. From there, the rockets could be hired by the US government for nearly any desired task, be it the preliminary colonization of moons and planets, orbital construction projects, or asteroid mining.
America’s Competitive Interests
A new, massive station does not have to exclude foreign nations for the sake of US national interests. Like Russia with the Soyuz, the United States could rent out sections of the station or space on board for foreign experiments, tourists, and equipment testing. Such an arrangement would be valuable to both the United States and foreign nations, as it would reduce costs to the United States through fees for use of the station as well as reduce the investments of foreign nations, which would not have to pursue their own national space stations. As for clientele, the European Space Agency would likely be the station’s main client due to the decommissioning of the ISS. Japan and India could soon use the station too. Both nations are medium-weight space powers on the international stage. Japan has made numerous missions to the ISS in the past aboard Soyuz rockets and the Space Shuttle. India recently announced its own manned lunar fly-by in 2022. Afterwards, the new spacecraft could easily be used for further missions to low earth orbit and the new space station.
In the next few years, the United States will go from having no manned spaceflight capabilities to having three different capsules capable of manned flight from low earth orbit to long-range missions. Two of these capsules, SpaceX’s Dragon Crew Capsule and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, begin testing in the first half of 2019 and are planned for manned test flights later in the year if the initial tests succeed. NASA’s Orion Crew Capsule passed a major design review in December 2018 and is scheduled for a manned test flight in 2022 that will do a flyby of the moon. Combined, these three systems will give the United States a strong advantage in the manned flight industry as Russia steps off the stage and China tries to claim its dominion. The United States should not waste time or risk losing its edge in attempts to share strategic technology with other nations under the guise of international competition. The United States could (and should) leverage a temporary monopoly in manned flight capabilities to create distance between itself and likely competitors.
The Benefit to NASA
The United States should likewise push to use US-based launch companies. As spaceflight becomes increasingly privatized, NASA is feeling the pressure to remain relevant and retain funding. While NASA has been shown to be incompetent at managing timetables, keeping promises and remaining at or under budget, the administration need not be eliminated. Instead of undoing years of effort—and removing the most beloved government agency—NASA should refocus its efforts. Soon, NASA will have manned spaceflight capabilities; NASA currently has extensive research experience and massive infrastructure for launches. With the end of the Cold War and the rise of private launch companies, manned spaceflight from NASA is quickly becoming an expensive exercise in denying current downward trends. Research, on the other hand, is hard to compensate for. The undeniable advantage that NASA has and will likely maintain is its infrastructure for launches.
SpaceX and ULA already utilize NASA’s launch facilities at Cape Canaveral in Florida for a large fraction of their launches. NASA’s facilities at Cape Canaveral hold forty-two constructed launch complexes, the majority of which have multiple launch pads. Of those, only 39A is currently active, as NASA leases the pad to SpaceX. 39B is currently being renovated for the Space Launch System, but no other pads are in use. Launch facilities are rare due to the space needed to safely take off and NASA is more than capable of renting out its existing launch pads to other companies. As more companies arise to provide commercial launches, NASA could rent out launch pads to new companies when before they would have needed to construct their own facilities. These companies could also reduce redundancies and build on NASA’s decades of experience. On the other side of the equation, NASA could not only reduce its reliance on government funding but also bring new life and purpose to the organization. New income could be used to update existing facilities to encourage further use.
Time to Go Alone
The United States must decide on its future in space. Whether that decision serves ulterior interests or pursues the best outcome for America in space will decide which path the United States should take. However, to bring about the greatest success for America specifically, the clear path forward would be to maximize the potential of private space groups in the US. With reduced launch costs, increased capabilities, and the potential to reinvigorate NASA, private spaceflight is the future of a success-seeking United States in outer space. The United States stands able to reclaim its position from the days of the Saturn V moon landings, it only needs to seize the opportunity presented.
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